A Portrait of the Ever-Popular Mary Cassatt

PARADOXES abound in the life of the artist Mary Cassatt. American by birth, she lived and worked for most of her long life (1844-1926) in France. She never married but chose to create eloquent portraits of women and children, and other domestic moments.

At a time when few women of her social class worked to earn money, her goal was financial independence through selling her paintings, prints, and pastels. Cassatt was acclaimed in her own lifetime and has never lost favor with critics and the public.

In search of the reasons for this enduring popularity, art historian Mary Mowll Mathews traces the development of the artist and her art in ``Mary Cassatt: A Life.''

Mathews has been studying Cassatt's works for 20 years; her biography is comprehensive, definitive, perhaps even exhaustive. She documents every detail of Cassatt's childhood; the succession of houses in which she grew up; her family, friends, and professional relationships; and all the stages in her training and career.

Initially, the thickets of facts make for dry reading. And black-and-white illustrations only hint at the luminous art Cassatt created.

But, like a picture composed of tiny dabs of color that blend to make a vibrant image, the person behind the paintings gradually comes alive as a complex, independent, and original woman. In a life not without sadness and tragedy, Cassatt succeeded, even triumphing briefly after a physical collapse near the end of her career to produce a series of pastels that are among her best.

In the book's final chapter, Mathews discusses ``The Historical Cassatt.'' She reviews the literature of the past 90 years to note the succession of interpretations of what Cassatt's art and life signify.

This perspective, and the informative art-history context the author provides, add extra dimension to a superb piece of scholarship.

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